I was recently rereading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense the other day, and it was making a great deal of common sense. Yes indeed it really was making a great deal of common sense until the very end where he addresses specifically his fellow Quakers. He is very diplomatic in his wording that seeks to assure his reader that he never dishonors religion in any way. However, by the time he was finished it hit me that he was attempting to seduce in a very sly and subtle manner his fellow Quakers to the unthinkable: Violent revolution.
It is one thing to choose the musket over peace, it is quite another to seek to entice others to do the same. Ever since the founding of the Quakers in the mid 17th century, they endured every possible persecution against them and they stayed true to their non-violence. This non-violent position was iron clad. They were indeed a rare breed of Christians along with the Anabaptists, Mennonites and the Amish that constituted the Rustic Reformation as opposed to the oppression of the Royal Reformation.
In 1763 The Paxton Riots challenged Quaker domination in America. This lead to a crack in the door that opened just enough to discuss the possibility of armed resistance. Howard Zinn in his article on Dandelion Salad, “The Untold Truths About the American Revolution” makes it clear that a precedent was already set with the non-violence of the Founding Farmers that proved that there was no need for a violent revolution. Zinn says, “The farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven out the British Government without firing a single shot.”
So where is Paine in all of this? To understand Paine in context in regarding to his seduction of certain Quakers to pick up arms one must get past the smokescreen of Royalists vs Colonists. Also, one must get past Augustine’s Just War argument. Quakers were not Catholics. In other words, this debate in Quaker context was brand new. What emerged from this was Quakers who chose the musket like Paine. They were called The Free Quakers.
But herein lies the rub: Quaker writers like Nathaniel Green mused on the tension between the musket and non-musket duality. Fine. Open debates are healthy. On the other hand, Thomas Paine was an evangelist for violence. Thomas Paine was a violent seducer. He was a fanatic. He was a zealot. And his influence at the time was more than can be understood now.
So what does this have to do with today? Everything. George Mason refused to sign the Constitution because of slavery, and is unknown today. George Hay was for unconditional freedom of speech and critical of the Jefferson Administration’s abuse of the First Amendment, and he is unknown today. Thomas Paine is known and celebrated for his fomenting violent revolution and is celebrated today. History rewards the villains and ignores the heroes. Now that is not common sense.
from the archives: